Factors Affecting the Future of Higher Education: Access

December 2, 2012

Dr. Fred Saba

By Farhad (Fred) Saba, Ph. D.
Founder and Editor, Distance-Educator.com

High school students who successfully gain access to and complete their higher education do not only benefit financially throughout their adult life, they enjoy a healthier and more rewarding life style. Baum, Ma, and Payea (2012) stated:

  • Median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients working fulltime year-round in 2008 were $55,700, $21,900 more than median earnings of high school graduates.
  • Individuals with some college but no degree earned 17% more than high school graduates working full-time year-round. Their median after-tax earnings were 16% higher.
  • For young adults between the ages of 20 and 24, the unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2009 for high school graduates was 2.6 times as high as that for college graduates. (p. 4)

In September 2006, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education (US Department of Education, 2006), formed by the U.S. Department of Education, concluded that students, especially those from underserved and non-traditional groups, are not sufficiently prepared to gain access to or participate in higher education. Further, those who enter college are also unprepared to complete their program of study in a timely manner and without substantial remediation. The report also concluded that if this trend continues, employers will face a historic problem in replacing a workforce that is now primarily comprised of baby boomers who are about to retire in great.

The report, which focused on high school students, outlined the following problems in preparing students for higher education:

  • We are losing some students in our high schools that do not yet see preparing all pupils for postsecondary education and training as their responsibility.
  • Others do not enter college because of inadequate information and rising costs, combined with a confusing financial aid system that spends too little on those who most need help.
  • Among high school graduates who do move on to postsecondary education, a troubling number waste time—and taxpayer dollars—mastering English and math skills that they should have learned in high school. Some never complete their degrees at all, at least in part because most colleges and universities do not accept responsibility for making sure that those they admit actually succeed.
  • As if this were not bad enough, there are also disturbing signs that many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing, and thinking skills we expect of college graduates. Over the past decade, literacy among college graduates has actually declined. Unacceptable numbers of college graduates enter the workforce without the skills employers need in an economy where, as the truism holds correctly, knowledge matters more than ever.
  • The consequences of these problems are most severe for students from low-income families and for racial and ethnic minorities, but they affect us all. . (p. vii)

…students, especially those from underserved and non-traditional groups, are not sufficiently prepared to gain access to or participate in higher education. Further, those who enter college are also unprepared to complete their program of study in a timely manner and without substantial remediation.

More recently, ACT’s Annual Report (2012a) stated that in comparison with other advanced industrial countries: “On virtually every international measure of performance, American students score at or below average, with relative scores often declining as children progress through the system.” (p. 6). ACT’s (2012b) data for 2010 indicated that only 24% of high school graduates tested nationwide met all the four college readiness benchmarks as set and defined be ACT. (See figure 1).  (p. 3). This is while 28% of all high school graduates did not meet any of the benchmarks.

ACT benchmarks are pegged to scores in four subject areas of English, math, social science and biology.  These subject area scores represent the level of achievement required for students to have a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of earning a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing first-year college courses.

These findings are consistent with studies conducted in previous years. The National School Boards Association in its website titled The Center for Public Education (2012) indicated that national studies have shown that invariably two-fifths of high school graduates are not adequately prepared for college level studies. Also, the level of preparedness for first year college courses is even lower than the national average among students (often from African-American or Hispanic ethnic background) who graduate from high-schools in poorer neighborhoods.

A recent report from the Blackboard Institute (n. a.) indicated that the “gap between high school and college” is due to the following issues:

  • There is a general mismatch between the requirements of high school exit exams and the level of college entrance criteria.
  • First-year college students quickly find out that their high schools have not prepared them with 21st century survival skills they need to succeed in college. For example, while students studying in high school work in a more structured environment and often learn alone, in college, they study in a much less structured situation, and are expected to rely their own problem solving skills as how to navigate through college. Further, students who develop a social network in college on which they can rely for learning demanding academic subjects may succeed better; a skill which they may not necessarily develop in high school.
  • Contemporary student population is also more diverse in terms of educational background, as well as other characteristics, such as those, who work part time, and may even bear some responsibility for their siblings in families in which both parents work.

These barriers to gain entry to college are difficult to overcome for high school graduates who are still too young to develop the social and cognitive skills they need to succeed in college entirely on their own.


ACT, (2012a). Annual Report. Retrieved from http://media.act.org/documents/AnnualReport2012.pdf

ACT, (2012b). The reality of college readiness. http://www.act.org/readinessreality/12/index.html

Baum, S, Ma, J., & Payea (2012). Education pays 2010: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. New York, NY: College Board.

Blackboard Institute (n. a.) Closing the gap between high school and college. Retrieved from http://www.blackboard.com/About-Bb/Industry-Leadership/Blackboard-Institute/Reports.aspx

The Center for Public Education (2012). Retrieved from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/

U.S. Department of Education. (2006). A test of leadership: Charting the future of U. S. Higher education. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.